For spring break, our high-school junior son, Joe, and I visited five campuses in three cities. It was planes, trains & automobiles, with a dash of Uber.

Here’s Joe’s firsthand take on our college campus visits! For photos and video, check out @oncampuscollegeplanning on Instagram.

What was the best part of your college campus visits?

College Campus Visits Talking With StudentsJoe: Definitely talking to students. It takes some guts to approach a college student when you’re a high school student. But once you do it a couple of times, you realize they’re eager to talk with you and super helpful. I got to talk to the students at Kean University for like an hour while sitting in on a design class! That was awesome. Students are the most honest you can get because they’re not trying to sell you anything. They’re just telling you what it’s really like. A professor may tell you, “This class isn’t that hard.” While the students would say otherwise. What you really need is a student’s perspective on what it’s like to be a student there. That’s the perspective you need arguably more than any other.

What do you feel college campus visits offer that you can ONLY get in person?

Joe: You can read a brochure. You can go online. But you can never truly know what the place is like or how it feels until you get on campus. A campus visit gives you a sense of what it would be like to be a student there. It’s way easier to put yourself in the shoes of a student going there when you’re actually there.

What were your biggest surprises from your college campus visits?

Joe: Well for one, I was surprised that I didn’t like art schools. There’s nothing wrong with art schools. For some students, they’re perfect. For me, they’re not. I didn’t learn that from brochures and websites. I had to visit to experience how an art school differs from an Industrial Design program within a larger university.

I was also pleasantly surprised that my favorite schools weren’t the most expensive ones! Big relief! I admit that sometimes I do sort of equate big price tag with “good school”. But my dad always says, “It’s not about whether or not it’s a ‘good school’. It’s about whether or not it’s a good school FOR YOU.”

I didn’t expect to like Boston so much, but I really did. I didn’t expect Auburn to have as much connection to industry as they do. For my chosen field, that’s a big deal. I was biased going in, thinking that schools in big cities would be the only schools with solid connections to companies in Industrial Design. Now I know that industry connections don’t necessarily rely on proximity to a big city as much as on the program and their commitment to making connections happen for students.

What were your biggest a-ha moments from your college campus visits?

Joe: It put my mind at ease. I kept thinking I had to have all the skills going in. But at every school, they said that their job is to equip you to become an Industrial Designer. They don’t expect you to come in with all the answers. So, I was like, “Okay, yeah. I can do this.”

They kept reinforcing that they’ll teach you what you need to know. At Auburn, they kept saying, “You’ll be surprised how far you’ll come.” The seniors were saying, “Yeah, when I came into this program, I could barely draw.” Now they’re doing this big exciting work that’s really impressive. But when they started, they were just like me.

It was amazing and a relief to think, “I don’t need to know it all on Day One.” And that’s not just for ID. That’s for every program.

Now, I feel more confident. No, I don’t have the skills. Yet. But I have the potential to get them. I’m still the slab of marble that needs to be sculpted, but the sculpture’s in there. It just needs to be brought out.

What are some of your favorite go-to questions to ask when you’re visiting a college campus?

Joe: Okay, here are my biggies:

  1. “What kind of student would you say this program is best suited for?”
  2. “What do you do to prepare students for their line of work in this program?”
  3. “How are you different or better than the other schools students most often consider when looking at this program?”

What’s the benefit of spending time within the actual program you’re considering, versus just taking the general campus tour?

Joe: Well, where will you spend most of your time and energy while at school, and why are you there? It’s not to go to a football game or hang out in a dorm. It’s to learn how to be a professional in your chosen field. So you have to spend time learning what that’s all about. For me, it’s all about the design program they have. You can have the prettiest campus in the world or the nicest people or the best dorms, and that won’t make or break your design program. Maybe they have an awesome rec center. Okay, great. But who cares, compared to whether the program you’re interested in is good? All this stuff? It’s all luxuries. A pretty campus doesn’t matter if the program sucks.

At Wentworth, the school seemed fine and all. But I wasn’t really wowed until we spent time in the Industrial Design program. When I saw what they were doing and how they were doing it and talked to students and professors and saw student work on the walls. Then I thought, “Yeah, this is a great option.”

The more you stay on the general campus tour route, the less you can tell the true differences between the different schools you’re considering. Spending time within the program you want to pursue gives you a much better idea of what your life would be like as a student there, day in, day out.

When do you think students should start visiting schools, and why?

Joe: I think students should start visiting schools as early as possible. Even if you’re uncertain about what you want to study, that’s why you should start early. Freshmen, sophomores. Or even earlier. You don’t want to be short on experience and knowledge of what your options are. If you start early, you can see firsthand, you can better solidify your decision about whether you want to do it or not. If you explore and you find out that’s NOT what you want to do, awesome! You found that out early.

Even if you don’t know what you want to do, get out there, get your mind on your future and what the possibilities are. It’s good to start thinking, start figuring out what you like and what you don’t like. College tours can help you better make that decision. If you get your mind on College, you’re going to be thinking the right way.

You’ll feel welcomed on the campus. Let’s face it, they will see you as a prospective customer, so they want you to visit their school! We’re all in the same boat here. They’ve been in the same shoes as you. The students will want to share the info with you. The faculty will want to share info with you. But I was glad that no one really puts any pressure on you. They do want you to make the right decision for you. Plus it’s really fun to visit schools and think about all the possibilities.

Thanks for the insights, Joe!

What’s next for college campus visits?

If you’re not sure which schools should be on your “to visit” list, learn more about College Search.
And for a great tool for focused note taking during campus visits, download our FREE Campus Visit Bullet Journal.